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Keep jail public

June 16 2004
Florida Today

Turning over Brevard County taxpayer dollars to private jailers is the wrong approach

Brevard County must find a solution to its overcrowded-jail problem, but privatizing a public responsibility isn't it.

Allowing private companies to get into taxpayers' pockets so they can turn prisoners into profit centers is financially indefensible and an invitation to abuse. Brevard County Commissioners now considering the idea should abandon it.

A recent FLORIDA TODAY story showed promises made by private jailers that they'll protect government from lawsuits and save taxpayers money don't hold up under scrutiny. Some reasons:

Government agencies can't wash their hands of responsibility for their duties, either legally or just as important, morally, just by signing a contract with a private company.

Florida requires a minimum 7 percent savings to hand over prisons to for-profit companies, but the state's own study shows 80 percent of the private companies running prisons in Florida don't meet that standard.

Corrections Corp. of America told the County Commission that it typically saves its clients 20 percent, but closer questioning showed the county might get no savings at all.

The county now spends about $40 a day per inmate. On average, CCA spends about $38 per inmate, but charges the agencies it contracts with about $51 a day per inmate.

If the county has the extra taxpayer money to spend, it should use it to expand the jail and hire more guards now, not use it to fill private pockets.

And if commissioners need to learn how to build and run an efficient, effective, and humane public jail, they need look no further than the one is Hillsborough County, operated by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Department.

Its system has been praised nationally, and its staff is "extremely well-educated" about their job, said Ken Kerle of the American Jail Association, a Washington D.C.-based jail training and certification group.

Surely, local public servants are able to meet the same standards of performance.

Yes, the cost of running jails is rising.

But at least part of the blame can be laid at the feet of politicians and public support of "minimum sentencing" laws that put far too many nonviolent first offenders in jail who we -- and many others -- believe need not be there.

They include people arrested for drugs and others awaiting routine court appearances.

The sentencing laws, pushed by private-prison trade groups, tie the hands of judges, who repeatedly express their frustration.

And all the while the jails are filling up and the bill is increasing.

That very conveniently opens the door to private jailers to push their "solution," which is what is happening in Brevard right now as CCA tries to convince County Commissioners to sign on the dotted line.

If commissioners really are looking out for taxpayers, the answer will be a firm no.

Under responsible government, public jails can work well.

The County Commission and Brevard County Sheriff's department must make it happen.!NEWSROOM/special/jail/opedstory0617WJAIL.htm

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